Thursday, November 6, 2014

Interview with Sabra Waldfogel, Author of SLAVE AND SISTER

Adelaide Mannheim and her slave, Rachel, share a shameful secret. Adelaide’s father, a Jewish planter in Cass County, Georgia, is Rachel’s father, too. Adelaide marries neighboring planter Henry Kaltenbach, a Jew deeply troubled by slavery, and watches with a wary eye as her husband treats all of his slaves—including Rachel—with kindness. As the country’s conflict over slavery looms ever larger, Henry and Rachel fall in love, and as the United States is rent by the Civil War, the lives of mistress and slave are torn apart.

When the war brings destruction and emancipation, can these two women, made kin by slavery, free themselves of the past to truly become sisters?

"What could have been a tawdry tale of forbidden romance becomes, in the hands of author Sabra Waldfogel, a complex story of survival and the emergence of true love and heroism. Waldfogel has an eye for character and the historical training to ground her story in the milieu of the 1850s and ’60s. A veritable page-turner that will capture the reader from start to finish.” – Lavender Magazine

Slave and Sister is Sabra Waldfogel's wonderful debut novel. Sabra has graciously accepted to answer a few questions about her book, her love for historical fiction, and her future writing projects. Pull up a chair, make yourselves comfortable, and enjoy the interview.

Interview with Sabra Waldfogel 
I’m thrilled to have you on the blog to talk about your debut novel, Sabra. But let’s talk a bit about you, first. Ph.D. in American History, technical writer, historic architecture looks like the decision to become an author of historical fiction is the natural consequence of your academic background. Or the other way around?

Fiction was my first love, history my second. I started writing fiction as soon as I was able to hold a pen. After a long detour to get a doctorate in history, I made a living as a technical writer, but I never lost the desire to tell a story.

My experience in writing has been a call and response between fiction and history. As a historian, sworn to the conventions of scientific evidence, there were things I could never do. I couldn’t invent dialogue. I couldn’t create encounters between people who never met. And as much I wished for it, I could never attribute thoughts and feelings unless you have evidence to tell you that someone thought and felt that way.

As a historical novelist, I can rush in where historians fear to tread. I can fill in the gaps. I can make stuff up, and we can be especially free in imagining the thoughts, feelings, and motives of people who never said so while they were alive. It’s been a surprise and a joy to me that I can reach readers in a way that a historian can’t.

Many people don’t know that the ancients had a muse for history, but every historian knows her name: she is Clio. The ancients also believed that inspiration was divine, whether the writing was history or drama or poetry. I like to think that Clio smiles on me, as I twine together the history she presides over and this new genre, fiction, that never had an ancient muse.

Slave And Sister is your debut novel, but not your first foray into fiction. Can you describe your first approach to writing, the tricks and the lessons you have learned and applied to your craft?

My first real job after graduate school was writing training programs for a consulting company. We used a four-step process to make clients happy and get things done on deadline: research, outlining, draft and revision. The consulting business was feast or famine; I was either writing for so many hours a day that my spine hurt, or wondering if I’d still have a job the next month.

During a long slow spell I read a book by Kenneth Atchity called A Writer’s Time. He claimed that you could write a novel in a year if you followed a four-step process—guess what? Research, outlining, draft and revision. Just like at work! I soon discovered that you can’t really write a novel in a year, no matter how well-organized you are, but by the time the book was underway I didn’t care. I liked writing fiction too much.

The lessons of technical writing—discipline, organization, and deadline—have served me well as a writer of fiction. Michael Chabon likes to say that success in writing is about talent, luck, and discipline. I couldn’t agree more.

Did any author, book, or personal experience guide you in the choice of topic and setting for your first novel? How did the story of Adelaide and Rachel come into being?

Like most novels, Slave and Sister germinated for a long time. I wrote other novels before this one. The first had a minor character who was a German Jewish Southern belle from Atlanta, and that planted the seed of the idea about Jews in Georgia. Another novel was about a slaveowner who tolerated his white legal wife and loved his slave. Still a third was a 17th-century historical fantasy about a clever young Jewish woman who managed to save her people from destruction by the Cossacks.

But this book began with the situation described in the first chapter—the former slave on the steps of her former master’s plantation, facing two Union Army officers, trying to figure out how to persuade Sherman’s army to spare the place. I wanted to get to that point without telling a story of loyalty or servility. Jews in Georgia, the master torn between wife and concubine, and the clever girl came together in this story.

When I starting writing this book, I thought the love story was about the master and the slave. It turned out to be about the relationship between the two sisters instead. It’s a richer book for that focus.

Sorry to disappoint, but this book is not about me, except for my preoccupations as a historian. Well, maybe just a little bit about me. I like to think that I share Rachel’s and Adelaide’s bent for verbal sass.

For those who hear about your novel for the first time and are not sure what to expect from your writing, is there any author or novel you and your work could somehow be compared to?

I’ve been fascinated to watch how readers find me, and to see the books that guide them to mine. I’m part of a genre that’s grown up in the past five years—stories of women at a time of slavery, and especially stories that twine the white and black experience around one another.

If you liked Laila Ibrahim’s Yellow Crocus, or Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, or Jonathan Odell’s The Healing, or—less well-known, and undeservedly so—Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ Wench, you’ll like Slave and Sister, too. And anyone who thinks that my book is comparable to Edward Jones’ The Known World would earn my eternal gratitude.

Are you planning to write more historical fiction books? Do you think you have found your niche and voice, yet? Or you’d like to experiment and try your hand at different genres?

I have found my niche and my voice. I have another book in progress—with luck (and discipline!) it should be out in the middle of next year. It’s set in Mississippi in 1886 and it’s about a town founded by black soldiers that’s menaced by the biggest landowner in the county, who hires what’s left of the Klan to frighten them off their land. I like to say that it’s a girl book with a battle in it. Do they win? That would be giving it away…

And there’s a sequel planned for Slave and Sister. We have to get these two through Reconstruction! Rachel goes to Atlanta to live the life of a free woman, and Adelaide stays in Cass County to discover that teaching freed slaves to read and write can get you into a world of hurt…

My historical interests are in the decades on either side of the Civil War, and my particular fascination is for people, black and white, who faced the issue of slavery and its aftermath with courage and fortitude. I’ve yet to tire of the history behind that story, and I hope my readers won’t, either.

What do you read for pleasure? Anything on your currently-reading shelf?
I like to read (surprise) historical fiction, especially tales set in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I also like steampunk science fiction, with its Victorian overtones. I like literatures written by people whose ethnic or racial or national identity has been significant in shaping their psyches and characters, whether they’re Jewish, African-American, or South Asian. I like historical mysteries, too. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is wonderful.

I never plan my reading. I acquire books by serendipity. In a day of technology to manage the bookshelf, I rely on the lowest-tech book supply possible. Minneapolis is full of
Little Free Libraries, which look like birdhouses but house books that people leave for strangers. My neighborhood is full of them and my neighbors have good taste in literature. I’ve recently found Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (pre-Room, but great), and a guilty pleasure, Alexander McCall’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. So I can’t tell you what I’ll be reading next. I’ll have to walk around the neighborhood to find out.

Those are great finds! Little free treasures, I would say. And I did treasure your presence on the blog, Sabra. It was a pleasure to chat with you!

About the book
Publication Date: March 11, 2014
Publisher: Sabra Waldfogel
Formats: eBook, Paperback
Pages: 379
Genre: Historical Fiction
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Praise for Slave and Sister

“Two faces seen in a mirror: a black slave and her white mistress. Their eyes, their cheekbones, reflect a disturbingly similar cast. Disturbing for the times, antebellum Georgia, and for the reason: Adelaide Mannheim and her slave Rachel share the same father. Later, as war clouds gather, Adelaide, newly married, finds her husband and Rachel have fallen in love. What could have been a tawdry tale of forbidden romance becomes, in the hands of author Sabra Waldfogel, a complex story of survival and the emergence of true love and heroism. Waldfogel has an eye for character and the historical training to ground her story in the milieu of the 1850s and ’60s. A veritable page-turner that will capture the reader from start to finish.” – Lavender Magazine
“A carefully crafted cavern through time… Waldfogel’s wizardry with words makes it impossible not to be devastatingly impacted by her work… A literary tapestry of shame and honor, of glory and defeat, and of coming to terms with the most important issues in life.” – The Northern Star

About the Author

Sabra Waldfogel grew up far from the South in Minneapolis. She studied history at Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in American History from the University of Minnesota. She has worked as a technical writer and has written about historic architecture for Old House Journal and Arts and Crafts Homes. Her short story “Yemaya” appeared in Sixfold’s Winter 2013 fiction issue. Slave and Sister is her first novel.
For more information please visit Sabra’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Slave and Sister Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, October 27
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, October 28
Wednesday, October 29
Review & Giveaway at Forever Ashley
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, October 30
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Monday, November 3
Review at Book Babe
Tuesday, November 4
Wednesday, November 5
Thursday, November 6
Friday, November 7
Interview at Mina’s Bookshelf




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